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The first day of class is a big deal. Just as there is only one chance at love at first sight, teachers like us only have one chance to demonstrate of each class. As Sarah Rose Cavanagh (2016) writes, “On the first few days of class, students will be forming their impressions of you, and this impression may be more important than much of what you do later” (p. 62). Many educators and centers for teaching excellence write about how to teach an excellent first day of class (Lang, 2018; McGlynn, 2001; Weimer, 2018). Usually, they provide a checklist of essential things to do and ways to orchestrate a favorable first and lasting impression about the professor. Since the pandemic, there have been changes in teaching modality, increased challenges in engaging students, and more student struggles with building community. Winston Churchill taught us to never let a good crisis go to waste. Thanks to the ease of recording and sharing videos, which also came with the pandemic, we can significantly change how we construct our first day of teaching.
Let’s start the course before the semester begins. Then, we can use the first class to demonstrate our teaching styles, cultivate students’ active participation habits, and help students build community.
During the week before class begins,try posting introductory videos on a “meet the instructor” page in the learning management system. I recommend keeping most of these videos short, between 30 and 60 seconds—a la TikTok. You can share anything about yourself in these videos—such as hobbies, formal credentials, and teaching experiences—as well as your passion for this particular course, expectations for students’ behavior, and advice from former students on how to succeed in the course. Consider also giving a background survey and encouraging students to post their own introduction videos. By starting a class before the semester begins and providing introductory videos accessible throughout the semester, you give students who want to “window shop” during the first week or who add the class late for whatever reason a chance to get to know you and their classmates. You can share many other things before class begins to make students’ life more manageable. For example, as a math professor, I always include a flowchart to help my first-year non-STEM students decide whether my course is their best choice. Another type of popular video is a tour showing how to find my office and our classroom.
Building a community and setting up a safe and inclusive environment is a semester-long commitment that we can and should start on the first day of class. If you have given a background survey, consider assigning seats and put students into groups and “neighborhoods” (that is, clusters of adjacent groups) using the information you’ve collected. This way, no student will find themselves the only non-native speaker, the only person of color, or the only female or male student in a group. The general idea is that students can easily find someone they can bond with after a glance or a one-minute introduction. Similarly, each neighborhood might include students who scored high grades in the prerequisite classes, students who like to explain problems to their cohorts, and students who classified themselves as always having good handwriting and organized notes. These students can be the anchors in each neighborhood that other students attach to throughout the semester.
Even though all students will eventually post introduction videos, it is still a good idea to loosen them up and engage them with some icebreakers within groups on day one. A quick note is to be sure to use culturally sensitive and inclusive materials in class. For example, a popular idea for an icebreaker is to choose from “cats or dogs,” “Star Wars or Star Trek,” or “baseball or football.” As natural as those topics might sound, the latter two work only for students from dominant cultures. You might immediately lose the attention of an 18-year-old first-year student from a non-English-speaking country because none of these is part of their culture.
The first day of class presents a great opportunity to stimulate students’ curiosity and demonstrate our teaching styles to set up students’ motivations and expectations. Doing so helps to set the tone for the rest of the course. Also, motivated students are better prepared to engage and hence succeed in a course. Take my math course as an example. Most students expect a “chalk-and-talk” class. Namely, they are prepared to come, take notes, and leave. But I am a firm believer that “the muscles of mathematics are connected to the bones of experimental science by the tendons of mathematical modeling” (Hadlock, 1998). Hence, I take a modeling-first approach to teaching, requiring students to build models in groups, discuss them, and report back regularly. To be more specific, students will face real-life questions for which we collect data ourselves, develop mathematical models, solve them (with different techniques learned in class), reflect on them (“Does the solution capture the key phenomenon?”), and generalize them (“Does a small change in a parameter cause a significant change in output?”). On the first day of my ordinary differential equation class, for instance, I ask about the importance of vaccination in preventing infectious diseases, a real-life problem students should be able to model and analyze by the end of the semester. Then, students work in groups to use 30 M&Ms and a dorm map to collect data and model the common cold spread in a dorm, similar to the project explained in Winkle (2015). This activity is a simplified but relevant problem for general vaccination discussion. Every student could contribute to this subject regardless of their confidence level at mathematics. This activity sets up the active learning environment in the class and continues to help build community. Before dismissing the first-day class, we discuss the limitations of this simple model, so I have a chance to explain what tools and techniques we would learn this semester that can provide a more valid and accurate model to explain how vaccination will affect the development of herd immunity toward a particular type of infectious disease in a region. Most students are highly motivated to learn more when they know they will eventually write a report, which includes detailed mathematical analysis and plain-language explanation for a layperson, to give suggestions to politicians about the vaccination policy as a class project.
Finally, never end the first day of class early. We demonstrate our commitment to the course and the students by using every minute of a class, especially the first one. If the first meeting can be cut short, students begin to look for other things to put on the chopping block, whether we want it or not.
As Maryellen Weimer (2018) points out, the first day of a semester should be a day with only good news to share. Let’s ensure our students hear and see our genuine smile on this leisurely day. Happy teaching!
Cavanagh, S. R. (2016). The spark of learning: Energizing the college classroom with the science of emotion.
Hadlock, C. (1998). Mathematical modeling in the environment. Mathematical Association of America.
Lang, J. M. (2018, August 21). How to teach a good first day of class: Advice guide. The Chronicle of Higher Education. https://www.chronicle.com/article/how-to-teach-a-good-first-day-of-class
McGlynn, A. P. (2001). Successful beginnings for college teaching: Engaging your students from the first day. Atwood Publishing.
Weimer, M. (2018, August 21). The first day of class: A once-a-semester opportunity. Faculty Focus. https://www.facultyfocus.com/articles/effective-teaching-strategies/the-first-day-of-class-a-once-a-semester-opportunity
Winkle, B. (2015, July 2). Disease spread simulation with M&M’s and information on the wider SIMIODE community. Retrieved from QUBES: A BioQUEST Project. https://qubeshub.org/resources/484
Yanping Ma, PhD, is an associate professor of mathematics at Loyola Marymount University. She is an MAA Project NExT fellow. Her research interests include bio-math modeling and mathematical education focusing on modeling.